Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 30 May 2020

Abu Dhabi resident trains for Tokyo Paralympics in homemade kayak on his balcony

Paralysed after breaking his back, Mike Ballard will not let coronavirus disrupt his ambitions for 2021 and beyond

Mike Ballard has built his own kayak machine on the balcony of his Abu Dhabi apartment as he continues to train for the Paralympics despite the coronavirus restrictiions. Courtesy Mike Ballard
Mike Ballard has built his own kayak machine on the balcony of his Abu Dhabi apartment as he continues to train for the Paralympics despite the coronavirus restrictiions. Courtesy Mike Ballard

Considering the challenges Mike Ballard has overcome in recent years, the coronavirus lockdown was never likely to deter him from his Paralympic dream.

The former Abu Dhabi Harlequins rugby player is aiming to make the United States paracanoe team for the Tokyo Games.

He had been scheduled to attend the trials this month, as well as the World Cup at the end of May, to compete in the 200-metre sprint event in kayaking.

Those events, in addition to both the Olympics and Paralympics themselves, have been suspended by a year because of the global pandemic.

For Ballard, the delay is not a concern. Instead, it provides him with more time to fine tune his game in a discipline he has come to relatively late in his sporting career.

He committed to the Paralympic dream last year, after having doubts over the idea of devoting all that time, energy, and funding, to an event that only guarantees one heat, lasting less than a minute.

Now, it is all systems go, no matter what obstacles are thrown in the way.

When the Covid-19 safety measures brought about the closure of beaches last month, Ballard moved his training from the water of the Arabian Gulf to his apartment balcony instead.

He has created his own homemade kayak ergometer, elevated on a wooden plinth, which he likens to “taking a broomstick and putting resistance bands on the end, then pulling like a kayak paddle”.

“If you were to practice paddling on the ground, your paddle would hit the ground,” Ballard said of his creation.

“So you need to elevate the platform a little bit, and round the bottom a little bit, so it is unstable like a kayak would be.”

His resourcefulness is borne from necessity. The paracanoe team are some way behind the likes of track and field in the food chain of USA’s Olympic funding.

“I’m awfully jealous of the teams like Australia and GB with their $5,000 (Dh18,362) ergs,” he said.

Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, March 12, 2020. STORY BRIEF: Abu Dhabi man is one step closer to representing US team in Paralympics. SUBJECT NAME: Mike Ballard Victor Besa / The National Section: NA Reporter: Patrick Ryan
Mike Ballard in training in March before the coronavirus stopped him going into the water. Victor Besa / The National

“I don’t want it to seem like I’m whingeing about money. There just is none.

“My favourite line from an email for my coach said, ‘Congratulations, you are the top competitor in the United States of America, you have earned the right to pay for your own hotel room and pay for your flights to compete’.

“It is self-funded. Kayaking is an emerging sport. Obviously, we are not winning that many medals at this point, so we don’t get that much funding, so we don’t win medals.

“It is just the way the system is. There is some funding. We went to a training camp in San Diego last year.”

The 35-year-old American is well placed to qualify for the Games, as the outstanding USA contender in his category.

Bridging the gap to the likes of Curtis McGrath, the Australian who won gold in the event in Rio in 2016, will be tough, though.

Ballard, who suffered a broken back while playing rugby in Abu Dhabi in 2014, finished fifth in the B-final at last year’s World Cup in Poland, meaning he placed 13th overall.

Not bad for a relative newcomer to the sport, and someone who rents a kayak when he arrives at events, usually for about $200, which covers a week of training and the competition itself.

“There are only three or four models of boat, but in terms of inside the boat, there are almost no rules as to what you can do because everyone’s injury is different,” he said.

“They all need their own set of things in terms of what they need the boat to do for them.

“It is a massive thing for me to work out how I am going to safely strap myself in to the boat, get my legs in the right spot, get my core in the right spot, and be able to do that safely.”

Ballard keeps track of what his competitors are up to via Instagram. He also stays in touch with his own teammates via regular training sessions on Facebook Live.

Mike Ballard, who was paralysed from the waist down after a rugby accident in 2014, prepares for his trials for Team USA at the Paralympic Games next year. Khushnum Bhandari for The National
Mike Ballard, who was paralysed from the waist down after a rugby accident in 2014, prepares for his trials for Team USA at the Paralympic Games next year. Khushnum Bhandari for The National

He says the losses of living and working on the other side of the world to the rest of his team are more than offset by the advantages of living and working in the UAE capital.

“This is the best place I can be to train, to work, and to have a holistic approach to this,” said the Al Zeina resident.

“I can be on the water at 4pm every day, midweek, and then I’m off every weekend.

“It is sunny and beautiful every day. It never rains. Anywhere else in the world, that isn’t an option.”

The Paralympics have also had the effect of solving the expat itch for Ballard.

His ultimate goal is to be competitive at the Paris Games in 2024, and he regards staying in Abu Dhabi as key to that ambition.

“I am committing to it and saying that Tokyo is great, but Paris is the goal,” he said.

“So it has been really helpful for me that it has been postponed, just in terms of life in general.

“Even little things, like, do I want to hang up that poster on the wall - all those little decisions that expats struggle with - I’m not struggling with those at the moment.

“I’m where I want to be, even though we still have a long way to go.”

And, while he is looking forward to getting back out on the water, he says the coronavirus limitations should not have too detrimental an effect.

“It doesn’t matter what I am doing right now, so long as I do what I can to be in the right spot in 500 days’ time,” he said.

“We are weathering the storm, we are recharging the batteries, and we will be ready to go when the restrictions are lifted.”

Updated: April 8, 2020 08:27 PM

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